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Negură Bunget, Vîrstele Pămîntului (2010)

Romanian black metal mystics, at it again

Well, as you may well know, there have been some shake-ups in the Negură Bunget camp since 2006’s magisterial Om, leaving only Negru, the drummer, of the original members to carry on under this name.  I don’t particularly care about whatever disagreements led to the split, and have already suggested elsewhere that thankfully this drama never quite reached the farcical levels of the Gorgoroth drama.  The real question, of course, is, How does this stack up next to the visionary Om?

To this humble listener, the results are a bit of a mixed bag.  The core sound and intent of the band seems relatively unchanged, inasmuch as these Romanian lads are still banging on after a rather mystical, folk-ish take on black metal, heavily incorporating various non-traditional instrumentation into their potent and heady blend of magic.  Drudkh remains a none-too-shabby point of reference, as do American stand-outs Agalloch and Wolves In The Throne Room.  This, perhaps obviously, is all for the good.

These songs benefit greatly from the inclusion of not only some excellently non-cheesy keyboards, but also various folk instruments such as flutes (or pipes; it’s a bit hard to tell), horns, and a tasteful selection of extremely taut drums and other percussive sounds.  If you recall some of the wood-sticks-being-banged-together percussion from 2002’s ‘n Crugu Bradalui, you’re on the right track.  Negură Bunget’s take on folk-ish black metal is a highly melodic sort, with the melody typically quite wandering, and generally carried by tremelo guitar.  The core of the sound, however, is highly textured, which is most frequently accomplished by overlaying both acoustic and distorted guitars for maximum classiness.

On another positive note, the production here is generally quite clear, which allows for all the different components to be heard; you won’t really be left guessing as to when you’re hearing keyboards versus when you’re hearing “live” folk instruments, and the bass, especially, is given prominence at some key moments when it demonstrates some wonderfully deep oscillations.  The only complaint about the production, really, is that occasionally the drums sound a little off; the cymbals, especially, sound to these ears somewhat clipped, which I suppose is probably better than an overly splashy cymbal sound, but was still somewhat distracting.

One of my primary concerns in the transition to this new line-up was that the vocals of long-time mainman (and, frankly, ridiculously-named) Hupogrammos Disciple’s would be sorely missed.  Thankfully, though, the harsh vocals of new vocalist Corb are wonderful.  They are hoarse, deep, and impassioned, and recorded clearly enough that I imagine if I spoke Romanian, I’d have no trouble following the words.  At times, they remind of Sakis’ latter-day vocals in Rotting Christ.  Unfortunately, the few times that the band turns to clean vocals do not fare nearly so well.  On “Chei de Rouã,” in particular, the clean vocals are distractingly off-pitch, almost veering onto the Urfaust or Circle Of Ouroborus axis (which works with those bands, by the way, but not so much here).

I’ve mostly been positive so far, and truth be told, this is still a very good record.  Nevertheless, there are several details which keep this from reaching anywhere near the transcendent heights of Om.  My biggest complaint, really, is that the album never really gets any momentum, and when it does pick up a little bit of steam, it is arranged in such a way as to be almost self-defeating.  Too many of the songs are in the mold of a classic slow-tension-building-to-a-cathartic-outburst design.  Individually, this works very well, but because this happens again and again, listening to the album feels like the band is trying to begin the whole thing over again with each new track, rather than proceeding more organically from one song to the next.

Essentially, one of the reasons that Om came off so masterfully is that not only were the individual songs excellent, but the songs were written and the album was sequenced such that it still felt more or less like separate movements contributing to a greater whole.  On Vîrstele Pămîntului, most all the individual songs are excellent when listened to in isolation; strung together in this fashion, though, they seem far too much like brief flashes of something that could have been stitched together differently to produce a greater cumulative effect.  This leads not only to the problem of too many slow-building tracks, but also to the fact that many of the songs fade out too quickly once it seems like they’ve finally hit their stride.  This results in some rather awkward transitions.

Still, I don’t mean to give the impression that this is some sort of trainwreck.  As I’ve said, the individual songs tend to work quite well on their own terms, and the overall sound and vision of the band is still admirable, and relatively unique in the world of contemporary metal.  The two purely instrumental tracks on here, “Umbra” and “Jar,” deserve special notice for each featuring some very rich folk instrumentation and achieving an ambient effect that doesn’t also bore me to tears, death, or Nasum.  In fact, in light of these tracks, as well as the two acoustic re-imaginings included on the recent re-recorded version of their 2000 album Măiastru Sfetnic, it struck me that an all acoustic, ambient/neo-folk album by this band could be very interesting.

So, all in all, this doesn’t match up to Om (nor, to be fair, did I ever really expect it to).  What it does do, however, is to continue to weave their dark spell of meditative metal for Transylvanian forests, and I’m still quite happy to come along for the spinning of these heathen tales.

Overall rating: 78%.  Wasn’t broke, but didn’t fix.

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Devin Townsend, Physicist (2000)

Finally, some decent cover art

Released two years after the phenomenal Infinity album, Physicist may rank as one of the most Strapping Young Lad-ish albums in Devin’s solo career, which really shouldn’t be a surprise, given that this album has the EXACT SAME LINE-UP as Strapping Young Lad (Devin, Gene Hoglan, Byron Stroud, and Jed Simon).  If one were so inclined, one might even suggest that this is a bit like a hidden Strapping Young Lad record, given that SYL released no official album’s between 1997’s City and 2003’s SYL.  Fancy that.  Anyway, as a whole, this album does a nice job of walking a middle path between the spaciousness of Ocean Machine – Biomech, the general What-the-fuck?-ness of Infinity‘s genre-splicing approach, and the more straight-ahead industrial metal aggression of Strapping Young Lad.  Oh, and it’s also awesome.

“Namaste” kicks things off with a great burst of punky aggression, which is maintained through “Victim.”  These two tracks, plus the mid-album ripper “Death,” are some of the most intensely METAL moments in Devin’s solo career thus far.  The latter track, in particular, rather in keeping with its title, is the most face-shredding piece here, kicking off with the, ahem, soothing tones of Gene Hoglan blast-beating the shit out of your ears.  The weightier tone of some of these songs picks up in a slightly different fashion on “The Complex,” with its very martial ambient/industrial-sounding synths which sound most like tiny hammers striking a xylophone made entirely of anvils.

It’s not all sputtering rage here, however.  “Material” is the earliest stab at Devin’s fantastically pop-oriented songcraft on this album; this one especially nails its perfectly evocative chorus in such a way that I really want the track to go on forever, but it does its business and gets straight on with things.  Make sure you don’t miss the background vocal arpeggios on the second run-through of the chorus: pure bliss.

The track immediately following “Material,” “Kingdom,” is also absolutely dynamite, but in this case it works so well precisely because of its greater use of open space to contrast with the density and faster pace of most of the album’s shorter numbers.  “Kingdom” also features some of Devin’s most intense howling, fittingly over the lines “I’m fiiiiiiiine!

To these ears, “Irish Maiden” may be one of the only missteps on the album.  I think the rather jig-ish opening is somewhat annoying, but the track eventually redeems itself somewhat with some fantastic kick drum work from Hoglan and an excellent melodic bridge with some nice, thick riffing.

Devin Townsend is often discussed in terms of virtuosity, which I think is absolutely correct, but it’s important to note that much of the virtuosity on display here is not so much sheer instrumental prowess (you won’t find any brain-melting solos here, for example), but rather songwriting prowess.  This shows up generally in the fluidity of the arrangements, and the often complex (yet still straightforward-sounding) rhythms which are achieved through syncopation, or, in a few places (like “Victim” and “Jupter”), through a rhythm that relies on pick-up notes to give a quick, juddering attack to the start of the measure.  While we’re on the subject, “Jupiter” also has some really great rhythmic riffing on a 3/4 rhythm set against the slower 4/4 meter in the drums; instead of drawing attention to itself, though, this counterpoint technique comes across as extremely natural and smooth.

As many others have mentioned, the closing track “Planet Rain” is one of the most astounding songs on here.  While the rest of the album mostly trades in short, mostly compact pieces, this song is the lengthy and mostly melancholic counterpart to the pairing of “Life is All Dynamics” and “Unity” (from Infinity) or “Funeral”/”Bastard”/”Death of Music” (from Ocean Machine – Biomech).

The careful listener will have noticed, I imagine, the continuation of the rain motif from Ocean Machine’s “Death of Music” track here, and it functions as a really nice conceptual hinge.  This whole song is extremely evocative of a world completely wiped out and covered with never-ending rains.  This kind of apocalyptic imagery (even if it is largely self-conjured) matches up very nicely with Devin’s grandiose, highly theatrical and melodramatic (in the best way possible) style of songwriting.

When Devin sings,
“It’s quiet now, quiet now –
’cause it’s the end of world!
Quiet now, quiet now;
’cause it’s the end of the world!
,”
it really sounds like he’s having a conversation with himself: In the first two lines, he’s telling us the reason why it’s quiet now, but in the second two lines, because the “It’s” is dropped from the lyrics, it sounds like an invitation, or even a command, to be quiet now, at the end of the world.  I know this all sounds a bit goofy, picking apart these small aspects, but there’s something about this dude’s music that cries out for this level of emotional investment.  The whole track is fantastic, and needs to be heard in its entirety, but a favorite passage is right around the four-minute mark, where we finally get a simple, searing guitar lead to cut through the dense bundle of sounds and textures.

Eventually, the track fades out into the (rather appropriate) sound of rain falling, which transitions into the hidden track, called “Forgotten,” which is actually just a bizarre re-recording of “Bad Devil.”  This utterly strange new version of the Beatles-quoting (“She’s just 17, if you know what I mean…”) track from the Infinity album, closes things out in a rather odd manner, with its acoustic guitars draped in alienating drones and cymbal noise.

More than anything else, this actually sounds like some weird goth/blues/country tune, like you might find on a 16 Horsepower or mid-period Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album.  As is often the case with these hidden or bonus tracks on Devin’s solo albums, I usually listen to them all the way through, but since the album works so well as a holistic statement, I almost compartmentalize them in my mind, so that I don’t really think of this “Forgotten” song as belonging to the Physicist album.  Still, another brilliant entry into Devin’s solo discography, and a deeply emotive and powerful record.  Bang your head AND get the warm and fuzzies.

Overall rating: 93%.  Hear that truth again!

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Pyramids with Nadja, Pyramids with Nadja (2009)

Peace like a river

Released fairly late last-year on the frequently-excellent Hydra Head Records, this album is a collaborative effort that I never would have predicted, but which makes a good deal of sense now that it’s happened.  Most of the reviews that I’ve read of this album have come to the material with a lot of background in Nadja, but basically none in Pyramids; my experience is essentially the opposite.

To put it bluntly, I’ve always found Nadja to be rather alienating.  I feel like I really started to hear a lot about them around the time Body Cage came out, and I remember enjoying that album a fair amount, but the sheer volume of material this experimental drone/shoegaze duo have released since then is astounding.  Seems like a churlish thing to complain about, but they’re one of those bands that I can’t help but think is in desperate need of an editor.  You know the ones I’m talking about: Hellveto, Xasthur, Striborg, I’m looking at you.  I really enjoy all of those bands, in fact, but the overwhelming quantity of their music makes the task of differentiating them based on their quality a challenge that I typically don’t care enough to confront.

Pyramids, on the other hand, are a young band, with just their 2008 self-titled album released thus far.  That album, which included a second disc of remixed tracks from the impressive likes of Blut Aus Nord (a key touchstone, as I’ll explain in a bit), Justin Broadrick, and James Plotkin, among others, was absolutely astounding.  The most astonishing thing about their ghostly, unsettling, and otherwordly sound was just how fully formed it seemed, particularly for a debut album.

Incorporating bits of post-rock, ambient, electronic musics, and black metal into their swirling vision, the best way I’ve come up with for describing the sound of Pyramids is as basically the polar opposite of Blut Aus Nord’s excellent MoRT album.  That is, where MoRT took the accumulated traditions of black metal and shoved them through a pitch-black prism, Pyramids’ debut album takes those same traditions, grafts onto it a heap of other inspirations, and refracts the whole mess through a prism of shimmering light.

This collaboration with Nadja, then, stretches out their given format (most of the songs on the debut album only hit around the three-minute mark or so), and encases their weirdnesses in swaths of ambience, warm, shoegaze-y drones, and slowly shifting, highly textured feedback patterns.  The track “Another War,” in fact, was more reminiscent of post-rock scions A Silver Mt. Zion than anything in the world of metal; specifically, the echoing vocals and distant, treated piano recall A Silver Mt. Zion’s Pretty Little Lightning Paw EP, with that quintessential Pyramids drum treatment running in the background.  The album, as a whole, continuously flirts with all varieties of the ambient/post-rock/found sound scene, at times even dipping into glorious washes of noise more akin to Tim Hecker’s recent work (particularly Harmony in Ultraviolet).

“Sound of Ice and Grass” gets pretty metal, as these things go, bringing in some Sunn O)))-esque droning riffs about midway through, but these molten lava riffs are overlaid with jangly drone-leads on top, sounding very much inspired by (but not quite like) Blut Aus Nord.  As far as collaborative records go, this one is quite impressive for combining aspects of both bands into a whole which comes across as generally new, rather than sounding like “Oh, this track is a Nadja-penned track, and that one over there’s the Pyramids’ shtick,” etc (*cough* Kingdom of Sorrow *cough*).

Most impressive, to my ears, about what (I imagine) Pyramids brought to the show is a sense of some of heavy metal’s classic signifiers turned around and deconstructed.  For example, where there are drums on this record (even when they are programmed drums blast-beating away), they rarely function as drums, by which I mean providing a rhythmic backbone for whatever else is going on.  Instead, the drums, as was the case on Pyramids’ debut, are presented as simply another textural element in the overall sound-collage.

The closing track, “An Angel Was Heard to Cry over the City of Rome,” is probably the standout here.  It is both uplifting and weighty, in the best Jesu tradition.  But actually, more than Jesu (which is a bit of a too-easy comparison here), this song recalls “As Fire Swept Clean the Earth” from Enslaved’s Below the Lights album, in the way the listener’s focus is glued to the ongoing tension between the driving pulsations of harsh noise and blastbeats, on the one hand, and a soaring, searingly melodic guitar figure on the other hand.

If it were up to me, these folks could ride out that blissful groove for hours, but the song ends at just a shade over the ten-minute mark, meaning that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and leaves the listener craving more of this very unique, highly textured collaboration.  I suppose it seems doubtful that we’ll see another full-length collaboration between these two groups, but the evidence on offer here suggests that there must have been some real lightning bursts of cooperative songwriting the first go-around.

It ought to go without saying that open-minded metalheads only need apply, but anyone with more than a passing interest in the various avant-garde strains of electronic, ambient, and post-rock musics would certainly find a lot in which to revel.  Plug in and drone out.

Overall rating: 84%.  The best part is, you can’t really tell if this is a drone-ier Pyramids, or a janglier Nadja.

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